Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2009
Only recently have students of political theory begun to pay attention to Plato's Menexenus, and it deserves this closer study. In this article, it is argued that the dialogue is best read as Plato's at least quasi—serious critique of Pericle' famous Funeral Oration, and that a comparison of these two works leads to a paradoxical discovery. For by presenting Socrates in the Menexenus as a defender of a restrained and traditional politics against the bold imperialism of Pericles, Plato presents a figure who is hard to square with the dialectical critic of the city found in dialogues like the Apology. Whether there is nonetheless some thread tying Socrates' venture at political rhetoric to his signature form of philosophy is the deepest question posed by the Menexenus and one which offers new insight on Plato's complex view of the relation between politics and philosophy.
2 We will deal at some length with Salkever's discussion of the Menexenus, but should acknowledge two other treatments of the dialogue by political theorists. The first is in chapter five of Arlene Saxonhouse's Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)Google Scholar. There Saxonhouse is concerned less to undertake an independent interpretation of the dialogue and more to use it to shed light on the larger theme of her book. Since we do not wish to take her observations out of context, we will concentrate our attention on Salkever's discussion. The other political theorist who has recently discussed the Menexenus is S. Sara Monoson. In her article “Remembering Pericles: The Political and Theoretical Import of Plato's Menexenus, Political Theory 26 (1998): 489–513CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Monoson presents a subtle and interesting reading of the dialogue, but, as she herself notes (see note 3), she follows Salkever's general approach to the dialogue and concurs in his main thesis that the Menexenus is an investigation of the mutual influence of Socratic philosophy and democratic politics, presenting in particular a sketch of how the principles of the politics typified by Pericles could be engaged by philosophy through a quasi—political form of speech. Our response to Salkever can therefore be regarded, mutatis mutandis, as a response to Monoson as well. Surprisingly, despite its overtly political character, the Menexenus has received much more attention in classics and philosophy than political theory. The dialogue has produced controversies in these fields which we will be able only to touch upon. We direct the interested reader to Robert Clavaud's excellent review of the scholarly history of the Menexenus in Le “Ménexène” de Platon et la rhetorique de son temps (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1980), pp. 15–77.Google Scholar
3 The most extensive study of the Athenian funeral oration as a genre of its own and as a distinctive Athenian institution is Nicole Loraux's The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City, trans. Sheridan, Alan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).Google Scholar Loraux highlights the significance of the funeral oration as a vehicle for Athens's self—definition, for her “invention” of herself as a city; the Athenian funeral oration, Loraux argues, provided an opportunity to sketch a picture of Athens, meant to be at once descriptive and prescriptive. It is important to note, however, that such orations could not speak simply of Athens but had also to take some account of the individual dead who had given their lives for Athens, as well as exhort the living Athenians to such sacrifice in the future and console those who had lost their fathers, brothers or sons (see Menexenus 236e–237a). “The generalized praise of Athens,” in other words, had to be placed within the context of “the codified praise of the dead” (Loraux, , Invention of Athens, p. 2).Google Scholar The other work on the Athenian funeral oration as a genre and institution is John E. Ziolkowski's Thucydides and the Tradition of Funeral Speeches at Athens (New York: Arno Press, 1981).Google Scholar
4 Friedläander, Paul, Plato II: The Dialogues, trans. Meyerhoff, Hans (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), p. 216.Google Scholar
5 Kahn, Charles, “Plato's Funeral Oration: The Motive of the Menexenus,” Classical Philology 58 (1963): 220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The dialogue has so puzzled readers as to compel some to argue that it is spurious. This is the opinion of Zeller, Eduard, Platonische Studien (Tübingen: C. F. Osiander, 1839), p. 146Google Scholar; see also Schleiermacher's disparaging comments in Schleiermacher's Introductions to the Dialogues of Plato, trans. Dobson, William (Cambridge, MA: J. and J. J. Deighton, 1836), pp. 337–41Google Scholar. But if only for the testimony of Aristotle, who alludes twice to the dialogue in his Rhetoric, at 1367b and 1415b, scholars have generally not concurred with Zeller. Moreover, we have the testimony of other reliable sources, among whom are Ariston of Keos (the fourth successor to the head of Aristotle's Lyceum), Cicero, and Dionysius of Halicarnasus (see Clavaud, , Le “Ménexène” de Platon, pp. 17–29).Google Scholar
6 Aspasia was best known, of course, as a courtesan, and as a result of her infamous relation with Pericles, she was often blamed by the comedians for interfering in Athens's political affairs (see especially Aristophane' Acharnians 523–532). In his life of Pericles, Plutarch also notes that the reference to Aspasia in the Menexenus is a joke. Nevertheless, he says, we may take as true the claim that Aspasia had much skill in the art of speaking, so much so that several Athenians came to her for instruction. See Plutarch, , Lives, trans. Dryden, John (New York: Modern Library, 1932), p. 200Google Scholar; see also Méridier, Louis, Platon Oeuvres Completes, Tome V (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1931), pp. 78–79Google Scholar; and Friedländer, , Plato II, pp. 219–20Google Scholar. Moreover, if it is true to say, as Socrates indicates in the prologue of the Menexenus, that rhetoric is a form of flattery which is intended to “seduce” its listeners, then, as Stern, Herald S. argues in “Plato's Funeral Oration,” The New Scholasticism 48 (1974): 506CrossRefGoogle Scholar, it is perhaps further appropriate to attribute both Socrate' and Pericle' speeches to Aspasia. For a fuller discussion of the significance of Aspasia, see Monoson, , “Remembering Pericles,” pp. 498–99.Google Scholar
7 It is clear from this dialogue alone that Socrates and Menexenus are friends. But Menexenus is also named in the Phaedo (59b) among those companions who attended Socrates at his death. In a younger incarnation, he is one of the two main interlocutors in the Lysis, Plato's dialogue on friendship. Even at his young age in the Lysis, he appears to be acquainted with Socrates, perhaps through his cousin Ctesippus (207a–b). He is described by Socrates as “contentious” (211b–c), and indeed proves willing to converse with Socrates, even though he is refuted many times in the discussion. In the Menexenus itself, Menexenus must be around the age of 18 since he is represented as about to take up the political duties and privileges of an Athenian citizen. This step also appears to be particularly important in light of the apparently distinguished record of Menexenus' family in Athenian politics, but Menexenus indicates, if somewhat playfully, his willingness to be guided by Socrates in the matter (234a–b). For further discussion, see Meridier, , Platon Oeuvres, p. 51Google Scholar, and Rosenstock, Bruce, “Socrates as Revenant: A Reading of the Menexenus,” Phoenix 48 (1994): 339–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Rosenstock attaches special significance to the fact (according to Diogenes Laertius) that Menexenus is also the name of one of Socrate’ sons.
8 Aspasia also had likely passed away by this time. See Kahn, Charles, “The Motive of the Menexenus,” p. 220.Google Scholar As Kahn notes, Aspasia's son Pericles was old enough to be a general in the battle of Arginusae (406 B.C.). See also Taylor, A. E., Plato: The Man and His Works (New York: Meridian Books, 1960), p. 41Google Scholar; and Huby, Pamela, “The Menexenus Reconsidered,” Phronesis 2 (1957)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Taylor uses the Aspasia of Aeschines as evidence that Aspasia must have died before Socrates. See also Henderson, M. M., “Plato's Menexenus and the Distortion of History,” Acta Classica 18 (1975): 25Google Scholar; and Dodds, E.R., Plato's “Gorgias” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), p. 24.Google Scholar Referring to Dodds's observation that the Menexenus contains “a deliberate and fantastic anachronism,” Henderson observes, “One thing is certain about the Menexenus and that is its date,” by which he means the date of the dialogue's composition (around 387–386 B.C.) The events with which the speech concludes would seem to indicate not only when the dialogue was written but also when it should be presumed to be set. And this creates the anachronism, of course, that Socrates is speaking about 12 years after his death. This problem, along with the fact that Socrates refers to himself in the dialogue as an old man, and speaks also of Menexenu’ impending entry into a political career, have led several commentators to place the dramatic date, instead, around the end of the Peloponnesian War, i.e., near the end of Socrate’ life (cf. Rosenstock, , “Socrates as Revenant,” p. 332Google Scholar and Huby, , “Menexenus Reconsidered,” p. 109Google Scholar with Loraux, Nicole, “Socrate Contrepoison de L'Oraison Funèbre: Enjeu et signification du Ménexène,” L'antiquite classique 43 (1974): 210–11Google Scholar; Salkever, , “Socrate’ Aspasian Oration,” p. 135Google Scholar; Taylor, , Plato: The Man and His Works, p. 45Google Scholar; and Coventry, Lucinda, “Philosophy and Rhetoric in the Menexenus,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 109 (1989): 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Going this route, however, solves one problem only to create another: by this reading, Socrates' history in the Menexenus must refer to events that have not yet occurred and will not occur for another 16 or 17 years. It is impossible, in other words, to escape the difficulty of an anachronism in the Menexenus; it is a question only of where one thinks the anachronism lies or which horn of the dilemma one grasps: is Socrates speaking from the grave, or is he predicting the future?
9 Loraux, , The Invention of Athens, pp. 304–327Google Scholar; Henderson, , “Menexenus and the Distortion of History,” p. 33Google Scholar;Méridier, , Platon Oeuvres, pp. 74–77Google Scholar; Vlastos, Gregory, Platonic Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 188–92.Google Scholar
10 Even commentators who read the dialogue as comic or satiric acknowledge the serious tone of the addresses to the parents and children. See, e.g., Henderson, , “Menexenus and the Distortion of History,” p. 45Google Scholar and Coventry, , “Philosophy and Rhetoric in the Menexenus,” p. 14Google Scholar. Dionysius of Halicarnasus, who takes the speech as a serious piece of rhetoric, also judges this particular section as its most excellent part (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Critical Essays, trans. Usher, Stephen [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974], p. 30).Google Scholar And Kahn writes that “it is here [in Socrate’ ironical condemnation of the King's Peace] and in the immediately following address of the dead warriors to their sons that Plato speaks most vividly and directly to his fellow citizens; and it is here, I suggest, that the real meaning of the speech must be found” (Kahn, , “Motive of the Menexenus,” p. 226).Google Scholar
12 In general, ancient commentators, such as Dionysius of Halicarnasus (1974), tended to treat the speech as a serious example of political rhetoric. See Dionysius' Demosthenes, sec. 23 as well as Alfarabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Mahdi, Muhsin (New York: The Free Press, 1962), p. 67Google Scholar. Cicero, in his De Orator 151, notes that the speech was read annually at a public ceremony at Athens. For a sense of how controversial the question of the “seriousness” of the Menexenus and its funeral oration has become, compare Taylor, who observes that “it is idle to suggest that the whole affair is a mere Aristophanic jest, and that Plato only wants to show that he can rival the comedians on their own ground by putting ludicrous ‘topical allusions’ into the mouth of his hero” (Taylor, , Plato: The Man and His Works, p. 41)Google Scholar, with Dodds, who insists that only the “stupidest” of Plato's contemporaries could have taken the speech seriously and who argues precisely that the Menexenus “parodies the stylistic tricks and the historical falsifications of patriotic oratory” (Dodds, , Plato's “Gorgias,” p. 24, including n. 2).Google Scholar
16 For other discussions of the evidence that the Menexenus ought to be taken as a response to Pericles' Funeral Oration, including parallels between the two speeches, see Kahn, , “The Motive of the Menexenus,” pp. 220–23Google Scholar; Henderson, , “Plato's Menexenus and the Distortion of History,” pp. 26–29Google Scholar; Salkever, , “Socrate’ Aspasian Oration,” pp. 133–35Google Scholar; and Monoson, , “Remembering Pericles,” pp. 491–92.Google Scholar
18 See, e.g., Henderson, ;, “Plato's Menexenus and the Distortion of History,” pp. 25–29Google Scholar; Loraux, ;, “Socrate Contrepoison,” pp. 188–89Google Scholar; Méridier, , Platon Oeuvres, pp. 78–82Google Scholar; Taylor, , Plato: The Man and His Works, pp. 42–45Google Scholar; Vlastos, , Platonic Studies, pp. 197–201.Google Scholar
24 Not surprisingly, Salkever takes a somewhat different view: “In trying to assess the meaning of the Menexenus, it is crucial not to exaggerate some central Platonic distinctions or tensions (e.g., philosophy/politics, mythos/logos … and serious/playful) by assuming that the weight of the dialogue must fall into one or another of each pair” (Ibid., p. 135).
26 Further references to Pericles' Funeral Oration will include only the section numbers. Every other reference to Thucydides will include the book number in Roman numerals. We are using the standard Stephanus numbers for references to Plato. Citations are to the Oxford Classical Texts editions. Translation are our own.
28 Cf. de Romilly, Jacqueline, Thucydides and Athenian Imperialism, trans. Thody, Phili (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), p. 131Google Scholar: “[Athens's] power is considered only as the result (and, on this occasion, the proof) of the Athenian merits which have been analyzed in the speech as a whole. This power owes its existence to the principles on which Athens acts, to her political habits and to her way of life in general; it follows from what might be called her spiritual superiority”. See also Connor, Thucydides, p. 66.
30 Monoson has an extended discussion of the erastes metaphor and Pericles' “erotic model of citizenship”. See “Remembering Pericles”, pp. 495–504.
31 Cf. Bolotin, David, “Thucydides” in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., ed. Strauss, Leo and Cropsey, Joseph (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 20Google Scholar. We are following Orwin, Humanity of Thucydides, p. 17, n. 4 in reading section 40 in general and 40.4–5 in particular as referring to the Athenian empire (cf. Hornblower, Simon, A Commentary on Thucydides, vol 1 [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991], p.305Google Scholar, and Rusten, J. S., Thucydides Book Two [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989], p. 156).Google Scholar
32 Rusten notes both that Pericles' description (42.4) of the decision made by the fallen soldiers doubles as an exhortation to the living and that this exhortation does not simply call the Athenians to sacrifice but offers glory as a great reward (1989,161–62). On this last point, see also Romilly, Thucydides and Athenian Imperialism, pp. 138–39 and Connor, Thucydides, pp. 73–74.
33 The striking contrast between the opening movement of Socrates' speech and that of Pericles' is noted also by Salkever, Saxonhouse, and Monoson. Saxonhouse and Monoson each gives an extensive and detailed analysis of the role Socrates' (or Aspasia's) claims that the Athenians are autochthonos and born of their mother earth play in his (or her) speech (see Saxonhouse, Fear of Diversity, pp. 118–20 and Monoson, “Remembering Pericles”, pp. 501–502). Salkever finds the opening among the more ludicrous parts of Socrates' speech (“all this ridiculously inflates the specialness of Athens”), although he then goes on to find a significant difference in the fact that Socrates' account “makes the greatness of Athens depend on the good fortune of her natural origin and on divine favor” whereas in Pericles' it depends “on the special bravery of Athenian men in war” (Salkever, , “Socrates' Aspasian Oration”, p. 137).Google Scholar
34 Cf. Thucydides 37.1–2. On Socrates' account of the Athenian regime in general, and in particular on the meaning of Socrates' claim that it is an aristocracy, Salkever's discussion is very helpful. Salkever brings out the ambiguities in Socrates' account, and he shows that on closer inspection Socrates is not simply laudatory of Athenian practice; he also offers an instructive comparison with Thucydides' account of the Athenian regime (Salkever, , “Socrates' Aspasian Oration,” p. 138).Google ScholarSee also Kahn, , “The Motive of the Menexenus”, pp. 225–26Google Scholar; Vlastos, , Platonic Studies, pp. 192–201Google Scholar; and Henderson, , “Plato's Menexenus and the Distortion of History”, pp. 38–39.Google Scholar
35 See also Kagan, Donald, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy (New York: Free Press, 1991), pp. 93–95.Google Scholar
36 Consider Thucydides: “The truest cause [of the Peloponnesian War], even if the one least apparent in speech, I believe to be that the Athenians by becoming great and instilling fear in the Lacedaemonians compelled them to make war” (1.23.6).
37 Socrates' silence about Athenian imperialism is perhaps the biggest distortion in a historical account that has no shortage of distortions or lies. For instance, Socrates also portrays the Athenians as the leaders of the Greeks in the Persian Wars, downplaying the role of the Spartans by making no mention of Thermopylae and by suggesting that Athens fought alone at Salamis and Artemesium; he declares, remarkably, that the Peloponnesian War ended in Athenian victory not defeat, claiming that Athens was undone only subsequently by civil war at home; and he obscures and misrepresents the alliance between Athens and Persia in the Corinthian War. For more thorough discussions of the distortions and lies in Socrates' account of Athenian history, see Kahn, , “The Motive of the Menexenus,” pp. 224–225;Google Scholar, Méridier, , Platon Oeuvres, pp. 59–64;Google ScholarHenderson, , “Plato's Menexenus and the Distortion of History”, pp. 38–46;Google Scholar and Shawyer, J. A., The “Menexenus” of Plato (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), pp. xi–xv.Google Scholar
38 See, e.g., Salkever, , “Socrate’ Aspasian Oration,” p. 133Google Scholar; Monoson, , “Remembering Pericles”, p. 494Google Scholar; Henderson, , “Plato's Menexenus and the Distortion of History”, p. 25Google Scholar; Kahn, , “The Motive of the Menexenus”, p. 220Google Scholar; Coventry, , “Philosophy and Rhetoric in the Menexenus”, p. 8Google Scholar; Huby, , “The Menexenus Reconsidered”, p. 110Google Scholar; Schleiermacher, , Introductions to the Dialogues of Plato, pp. 338– 39Google Scholar; Dodds, , Plato's “Gorgias”, p. 24Google Scholar; and Clavaud, , Le “Ménexène” de Platon, pp. 15–16.Google Scholar
39 It is important to the difference between our interpretation and Salkever's that we place much more weight on this concern and see it playing a much larger role in Socrates' speech than Salkever does. In fact, Salkever has little to say about justice, and this may go hand in hand with his willingness to dismiss Socrates' history as merely “boring and repetitive” and to clain that the history “provide[s] no point of reference for future action” (Salkever, , “Socrates' Aspasian Oration”, p. 139)Google Scholar. Regarding this last point in particular, we will express our disagreement in what follows.
40 Taylor notes the echoes here of Isocrates' Panegyricus, in Particular Isocrates' distinction between Greeks and Barbarians, and his encouragement of Athenian commitment to the cause of Panhellenism. See Taylor, , Plato: The Man and His Works, p. 42Google Scholar; also, Kahn, , “The Motive of the Menexenus”, p. 231.Google Scholar
41 In regarding these addresses at the end as the weightiest part of Socrate’ speech, we are very much in agreement with Salkever. After stressing the gravity of these addresses, however, Salkever remarkably devotes only one paragraph of his discussion to them and, in particular contrast to our own procedure, he almost completely disregards the address to the children, jumping directly to the latter address to the parents (Salkever, , “Socrates’ Aspasian Oration,” p. 140).Google Scholar By doingso, moreover, he conveys the impression that Socrates offers here a more or less unified message, and one which is “thoroughly Platonic.” We will go on to argue, by contrast, that there are important differences between the two addresses Socrates delivers and that it would be especially difficult to interpret the advice to the children as Platonic. Our argument should be contrasted also with Monoson, ,“Remembering Pericles,” pp. 502–504.Google Scholar Monoson notes the emphasis on selfreliance in the speech to the parents, but she does not see this as out of keeping with the general stress on familial ties and obligations
42 The “advice” that the two speeches offer on the question of how one ought to live is apparently unique to the Periclean and Socratic funeral orations. Ziolkowski maintains that the exhortation to the audience in these two orations differs from that of other funeral speeches, observing that it is not only longer but also that “the other speakers include no advice for future action as Thucydides and Plato do.” Moreover, he observes that the two orations themselves differ in this respect, for “Thucydides gives directions for personal conduct in the present war; Plato gives general advice for conduct in war and peace” (Thucydides and the Tradition of Funeral Speeches at Athens, pp. 159–60).
43 Several commentators have noted here the clear allusion to the Apology 29d–30b. See, e.g., Friedlander, , Plato II, p. 226;Google ScholarHenderson, , “Plato's Menexenus and the Distortion of History,” p. 45;Google Scholar and Coventry, , “Philosophy and Rhetoric in the Menexenus,” p. 14.Google Scholar
44 Cf. Monoson, , “Remembering Pericles,” p. 503Google Scholar, “The speech suggests virtue is meant in a broad sense and not simply as a stand-in for valor.”
47 We thus see a greater continuity between the parts of Socrates’ speech than does Salkever, who seems to suggest that there is little connection between Socrates’ history and his subsequent addresses to the families (see Salkever, , “Socrates’ Aspasian Oration,” pp. 139–40).Google Scholar
49 Regarding Pericles’ attitude towards the divine, consider the following statement of Grene, which refers to all three of Pericles' speeches in Thucydides: “It is extraordinary in such speeches as these—one contemplating the city's engagement in a long war, one spoken in praise of the dead, one defending a leader suspected because of what was accidental mischance—that, with the exception of one insignificant and quite colorless reference, there should be no mention of divine guidance, divine blessing, or even, in a merely sentimental allusion, fatherland's gods … [Pericles] shares with his hearers–knows it and draws his power from it—the knowledge that he and they are not like those of another age or another state who will bolster their hopes or their fears or even their sorrow by reference to beliefs outworn and dead” (Grene, , Man in His Pride, p. 88).Google Scholar For a discussion of “the amoral strain in Pericles’ thought,” see Connor, , Thucydides, p. 75, n. 54.Google Scholar
50 This fact is noted also by Salkever, although he does not attach to it the significance we do (Salkever, , “Socrates’ Aspasian Oration,“ p. 140).Google Scholar
51 As we noted above (n. 41), Salkever does not stress, or even point out, any difference between the two addresses (see Salkever, , ”Socrates’ Aspasian Oration,” p. 140Google Scholar). Yet this difference, we contend, is striking and of much importance in interpreting the Menexenus. The contrast between the two messages at the end, we would also argue, is the most immediate textual path to the deepest riddle of the dialogue.
52 We thus agree with Salkever that this address can be seen as Socratic or Platonic (see Salkever, , “Socrates’ Aspasian Oration,” pp. 140–41);Google Scholar but, to repeat, we suggest that this marks a contrast between the address to the parents and the address to the children (see notes 41 and 51 above). On the Platonic character of the address to the parents, see also Friedländer, , Plato II, pp. 226–27Google Scholar and Méridier, , Platon Oeuvres, pp. 71–72.Google Scholar
53 It may also be worth noting here that, as both Saxonhouse (Fear of Diversity, p. 117) and Salkever (“Socrates' Aspasian Oration,” p. 136) stress, Socrates and Menexenus are speaking in private. Even if Socrates delivers a “public” speech in the Menexenus, he does not deliver it in public. Socrates’ concern in the Menexenus, then, seems to be with a typically small (and typically young) audience—in this case an immediate audience of only one. Whether Menexenus, however, might go on to report the speech to others, or to give it a more public airing, is an open question.Socrates' only injunction is that Menexenus not report him to Aspasia (see 249d—e).
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